There are several cultural differences between Korea and my home country. Some are easy to adapt to, while others I still struggle with today! Perhaps you’re a fellow expat or soon-to-be living in Korea, or perhaps you’re planning your first trip. In any case, let’s play a game of yay or nay with Korean etiquette!
Taking Your Shoes Off
Starting off with some Korean home etiquette, removing shoes before entering the home is a practice observed not only in Korea, but in Japan and other South East Asian countries. Although I was born and raised in the UK, I have always loved the feeling of kicking off my shoes when I get home. There’s nothing comfier than sliding around in socks or slippers.
In Korea, however, removing one’s shoes is done in the name of hygiene. In traditional Korean culture, people would eat, rest and sleep on the floor of their homes. Therefore, when you visit a Korean home — and some traditional restaurants — you will notice that the porch is on a lower level, for you to remove your shoes.
Sitting on the Floor
Leading me onto our next habit/etiquette: sitting on the floor. Depending on where you live/stay in Korea, you may have to adjust to this habit whether it suits you or not. Before I came to Korea, I took up yoga, which made sitting on the floor for long periods of time much easier.
In fact, sitting on the floor makes me more conscious of my posture and its a refreshing change from vinyasa. However… Given the choice? I’d still choose the standard raised dining table and chairs. That being said, low tables and floor cushions are a great space saver in a studio apartment!
Eating with Chopsticks
Eating with chopsticks is another continental Asian custom, but did you know each country has its own variation of chopsticks? The traditional Korean chopsticks are flat, which makes them a little difficult to use.
As Western countries have become more diverse, chopstick use is more commonplace than it was a few years ago. However, when cooking or ordering Asian cuisine at home, my family and I would almost definitely choose a fork… or so I thought.
In fact, Korean chopsticks are a lot easier than they look. You may have heard Koreans mention “survival mode” English, referring to how their English skills improve while abroad, out of necessity. Similarly, as most restaurants in Korea do not have forks and knives, you will learn how to use Korean chopsticks in “survival mode.”
Just the food in general tbh. The food culture in Korea is multifaceted, with every meal being accompanied by side dishes. In the UK, side dishes might include salad, bread, fries etc. and cost extra in a restaurant. But in Korea, side dishes are thrown in for free, with many restaurants offering free refills!
As a lover of kimchi, side dishes are sometimes my favourite part of a meal! Popular Korean side dishes include seasoned vegetables, pickles and stir-fried fish. Delicious right? If you’re feeling adventurous you can even try beon-de-gi (boiled silkworm pupae.)
Side dishes are also a great way to include nutrients missing from the main dish. Something as simple as cup ramen can become a more substantial meal with some yellow pickled radish and a soft boiled egg.
Brushing Teeth After a Meal
This was something that really confused me at first. Across the globe, we are taught to brush our teeth twice a day: morning and night. When I noticed that many Korean people were brushing at lunchtime, I wondered if it was for an extra degree of cleanliness.
In fact, brushing your teeth more than twice a day can do more harm than good to our dental health. However, not long after a few meals in Korea, the reason for it became clear. Flavours in Korean cuisine are so strong that the lingering taste can be uncomfortable afterwards.
What’s more, this would certainly explain some of the Korean coffee and dessert culture — there’s nothing better than a cool bowl of bingsu to wash away a spicy meal. But, if you can’t eat bingsu everyday, brushing your teeth is a good etiquette to adhere to.
Now that I eat Korean food regularly, I have gotten into the habit of brushing my teeth after lunch. “찝찝해” (jjib-jjib hae) means to leave a bad taste in the mouth. Which Korean foods would you describe as being jjib-jjib hae? I nominate sundae (Korean blood sausage.)
One of the reasons I came to Korea was because I was fascinated by the language, particularly the unique characters and the way they arrange together. However, the honorifics of the Korean language is something I will always struggle with. Honorifics refer to a certain conjugation of words to show respect, as well as referring to someone by their title instead of their name.
There are different degrees of honorifics, for example, someone giving a presentation or news broadcast will used the highest degree of honorifics. Conversely, someone talking to their younger sibling will use “반말” (ban-mal), the most casual language form.
As a general rule of thumb, if a person’s sentence ends with a “yo” sound, they are speaking with respect. It is considered rude to speak to someone older than you in ban-mal, as well as to those more senior than you in a professional setting. However, in some cases, speaking too formally can be rude too! Confusing right?
While honorifics are an easy way to show respect and good etiquette, it can encourage inequality and disrespect as well. Additionally, I prefer using people’s names when speaking to them, instead of their titles, as it is more personal. Nonetheless, while I make a lot of mistakes with Korean honorifics, I’ve found that people are always understanding. In fact, many Koreans are humbled to hear a foreigner trying to speak their language.
Coffee, coffee and more coffee
Before I came to Korea, I hated coffee. I’ve never been a huge fan of hot drinks — except for tea — and ice coffee is not that common in the UK. However, I was finally won over by Korea and its coffee culture. The huge variety of theme cafes, abundance of ice beverages and relaxing cafe atmospheres was — and is — one of my favourite things about Korea.
While I’m not quite at the tier of ice americano (just coffee + water), I enjoy a mint chocolate latte while I work and the occasional vanilla latte in a cute cafe.
Accepting Food in a Friend’s Home
British people have a reputation of being polite and apologetic. As such, when invited to a friend’s home for a short time i.e. not for a meal, we often decline offers of food as not to burden the host. However, if you were to decline food in a Korean household, even during a short visit, it would be perceived as strange.
For Koreans, it is etiquette to serve food to guests, even if they are not staying for a long time. Admittedly, it took me a while to recognise this. I once visited a Korean friend’s home after we had been to a restaurant and she offered me some fruit. I declined, because I was full, but she explained that she would feel uncomfortable if I didn’t eat something.
A cup of tea and maybe some biscuits are the norm in the UK and — as I prefer more personal settings — I think I prefer this. While it is very kind for someone to prepare me food, I can’t help but feel burdensome.